Comedy is often deeply unsettling, making us squirm even while we laugh. Whether we’re watching someone tumble down a flight of stairs after slipping on a banana peel (it’s a classic for a reason!) or listening to a comic’s pointed commentary on racism, humor pushes boundaries.
Is discomfort an essential part of comedy, or just one way to be funny? We asked seven of our favorite humorists for their take on the question: can comedy ever be comfortable?
“A Little Discomfort Makes You More Comfortable”
Think about what it feels like to be tickled — physically tickled by another person. That poke to your ribs sets you giggling, and after that laugh you might feel relaxed or even euphoric; but the poke itself is uncomfortable. It makes you feel things in that between-the-ribs space where you don’t normally feel things.
A good joke does that, too. It pokes at something you’ve had hidden or unacknowledged — some shame or grudge or insecurity — and for a second, that’s uncomfortable. But it releases a pressure valve; you can own up to that uncomfortable thing while laughing at it, and you feel better afterward. A little discomfort makes you more comfortable. I’m thinking of Tina Fey’s story about running into Donald Trump, and how instead of calling him out for the crazy things she thinks he says, she simpered politely. We’ve all embarrassed ourselves like that, talked a big game behind someone’s back and then totally wussed out in the moment. It’s funny because it’s true, and the truth is uncomfortable — but relatable.
Which is not to say that humor has to hurt. There’s discomfort and then there’s pain. Everyone’s line between the two lies in a different place. But if you stay completely inside a comfort zone, it’s almost impossible to be funny. There’s got to be some little poke.
“Comedy Hinges on the Subversion of Expectation”
Ryan Morrison publishes a daily comic on Only the Truest of Facts and collects all his music, words, drawings, and videos at Prosimian Media. He can eat two roast chickens in a sitting, and is also on Facebook and Twitter.
Comedy hinges on the subversion of expectation. If a scenario is safe, and if safety requires a lack of surprise, then a comfortable world is a world where no punchline can bloom.
“Comedy requires discomfort” does not mean that all surprises, all shocks, are humorous. The customary response to having your throat gouged out is not laughter and applause. Nor does the legitimacy of comedy rest upon its lack of comfort. If you punch down, if your attempts at humor generate and sustain systemic marginalization, it doesn’t matter whether you were trying to make someone laugh; such humor is indefensible.
Because here’s the crux: the subversion of expectation is where a joke starts. It’s where the shock hits the system. But the laughter — the part of the joke that’s funny — only comes when there’s relief. When there is a sense of, for lack of a better word, safety. If the joke is offensive and you’ve triggered someone’s pain, the relief for that person never comes.
Here’s the crux: the subversion of expectation is where a joke starts. It’s where the shock hits the system. But the laughter — the part of the joke that’s funny — only comes when there’s relief.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t always feel this way. I never checked my privilege. I believed comedy had no right being safe, and the bleeding edge of commentary required a dark celebration of the pain of others. For those people, I think it’s time they thought about the direction they’re punching. Because if what they really wanted to do was make someone laugh, I want to know why they’re okay with making someone else cry.
“Comedy Comes from the Second-Worst Place In My Head”
If an idea can be expressed in list form, you’ll find it on Stephanie Summar‘s Listful Thinking, a blog created for a college assignment now followed by more than 20,000 readers. For more bulleted, well-organized chuckles, find her on Facebook or Twitter.
I developed a sense of humor specifically to avoid ever feeling uncomfortable even once in my life. You never have to feel anything as long as you have jokes! Comedy is great for audiences, too, because even if it presents an uncomfortable topic, it’s sealed inside a joke and you never have to touch the thing. Not all topics need to be edgy; Erma Bombeck made a good living writing jokes about laundry. Comedy is the coziest art form.
But then I remembered that humor isn’t comfortable for me. At all. It comes from the second-worst place inside my head. Not the place where I am the most frightened, insecure, and mean, but a place right next to that. Comedy isn’t comfortable for audiences, either, because humor is rooted in surprise and for some of us, surprises are the stuff of nightmares. It can make you think about things that you’d prefer to avoid, and — worse — sympathize with what’s being said. That means that you, too, have a bad place in your head, and that you’re not the good and decent person you always hoped you were. All of this is making you involuntarily contract your diaphragm with violent “ha ha” noises, and that’s pretty freaky, too.
It can make you think about things that you’d prefer to avoid, and — worse — sympathize with what’s being said. That means that you, too, have a bad place in your head, and that you’re not the good and decent person you always hoped you were.
When Erma wrote about laundry, she was writing about gender roles, and the micro-moments that add up to your whole ridiculous life, and an entire spectrum of human emotion, all centered around socks. Comedy is a narrative art form, and the uncomfortable disruption of the norm is a key point in any narrative arc. If humor weren’t uncomfortable, it wouldn’t be humor. It comes from a scary place in someone’s head, worms its way around all of your carefully constructed defense mechanisms, and causes your muscles to spasm.
At least everyone has a scary place in their head that they’d rather not discuss. And that’s comforting, I guess.
“Good Comedy is in the Eye of the Beholder”
Peg Schulte of Peg-o-Leg’s Ramblings is the self-professed “secret lovechild of Erma Bombeck and Dave Barry.” She also contributes to The Nudge Wink Report, and can be found skulking about on Facebook and Twitter.
A lot of edgy humor is at someone else’s expense. Some comedians wield humor with knife-like sharpness and, even as I laugh at their cleverness, I find myself squirming in sympathy for the victim who is getting filleted. It reminds me of junior high. Not all bullies are big guys with clenched fists, and those who crush someone with cruel words are probably worse. They cloak cruelty with humor, then disavow any responsibility for the pain caused by whipping out their Get Out of Jail Free Card with a “hey, I was just kidding.” I prefer to make someone laugh at a shared experience, and avoid ad hominem attacks.
Having said that, what makes good comedy is very much in the eye of the beholder and depends on our cultures, experiences, and ages. Our own definition changes moment by moment. What strikes us as funny once might not at another time –- it depends on our moods. Humor is like sex in that way: one day you might get turned on by a quickie in the cloak room of a fancy restaurant, and the next enjoy the kind of intimacy gained from sharing the comfort of your own bed with a beloved partner.
(FYI, that cloak room part was speculation, and not based on personal experience.)
“Comfort Doesn’t Inspire Change”
Improv comic and writer Robin Hardwick‘s commitment to pop culture runs deep: she’s reviewing the full run of Golden Girls, and is the author of If You Lived Here, You’d Be Perfect From Now On: The Unofficial Guide to Sweet Valley High. Find her on Facebook, on Twitter @RobinHardwick, or at home reading about serial killers and complaining about kids these days.
Comedy can be comfortable in the way that putting on your stretchy pants immediately upon getting home from work is comfortable: it’s a guarantee that there’s no motivation to take on any challenges, and you already know the outcome.
Comfort is safe. Comfort doesn’t inspire change. Comfort guarantees no emotional highs and lows.
There’s discomfort in the way comedy forces us to think about ourselves and our actions. The physiological and cognitive discomfort is why I love comedy. It’s like a high. It’s like an athlete getting a shot of adrenaline: it puts a fire under our (metaphorical) asses to think and feel something, to make a decision about what kind of people we are — what we stand for, and what we won’t stand for.
[The discomfort is] like an athlete getting a shot of adrenaline: it puts a fire under our (metaphorical) asses to think and feel something, to make a decision about what kind of people we are — what we stand for, and what we won’t stand for.
I watch horror movies because they let me feel mental and physiological fear without actually being bludgeoned to death. Why wouldn’t I want to feel everything there is to feel as a human, especially in a controlled environment? Comedy won’t literally come to your house and heckle you, but comedy can make you angry, passionate, even humbled. Louis C.K. talks about how he sometimes hates his kids. Amy Schumer talks about how sex is confusing and embarrassing. Portlandia lampoons the ways that people can be cluelessly privileged. It’s uncomfortable and delightful, and delightful because it is uncomfortable.
We see these qualities in ourselves. We can relate to these things and know that it is often things we don’t like about ourselves but would never admit. The discomfort of it makes us feel human. Comedy is a surrogate for those of us that don’t have the confidence to express ourselves; it’s worth the discomfort. I’d rather feel everything there is to feel than to feel comfortable all the time.
“Laughing at the Monsters Makes Us More Likely to Confront Them”
The great thing about comedy is that it means so many different things to so many different people. Some people laugh at the why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-road joke or giggle maniacally at the interrupting cow knock-knock joke, and I’m a fan of anything that brings people joy.
Personally though, I find myself drawn to comedy that recognizes uncomfortable truths, or uses raw hyperbole or pushes the line to get a laugh. There are smart and clever ways of using comedy to talk about uncomfortable things that are hard to speak about without an ice-breaker to make us all realize that laughing at the monsters makes us more likely to confront them.
“Can Comedy Ever Not Be Comfortable?”
Mark Twain said, “There is no humor in heaven.” George Carlin said, “There are no bad words.” And Shakespeare said, “Don’t blame me, these jokes write themselves!” It’s been said in countless ways by countless observers that comedy should be subversive and uncomfortable.
Hello! Comedy not only can be comfortable and ought to be—it needs to be! Comedy should be safe for mass consumption, free of impurities and improprieties, cleansed of all cultural and intellectual challenges, sheathed in plain generic condoms, and shipped in tamper-proof containers marked “KEEP OUT OF REACH OF EVERYONE.” It should be as sedate as you’d suddenly feel after Bill Cosby slipped you a drink.
The real question is: can comedy ever not be comfortable?
What if every woman in America suddenly read Erma Bombeck and realized she doesn’t have to wait for the sixty-billion-dollar cosmetic industry to tell her when she’s good enough? Satire is bad for advertising, profits, and animal testing. Imagine the troops exposed to real humor and laughing at the bloody mess our so-called leaders have gotten us into, whole Army divisions dropping acid and quoting Bill Hicks: “It’s all just a ride, man!” Peace would break out in 30 countries immediately. National Security, Inc. would be starved of its blood money. The Pentagon would be converted to a multilevel parking garage.
Comedy must be comfortable. Any suggestion to the contrary is a subversive lie that needs to be suppressed. Don’t believe a word of it. The innocuous sensibility of the subject population must be preserved and protected at all costs. Comedy that throws a wrench in our mass conditioning is a crime against society.
Now, who wants to go sacred cow-tipping tonight?
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